Why did you found the Zen Hospice Project?
The idea was to bring together people who practice meditation and listen to their minds and hearts with people suffering at the end of life so that they are accompanied and listened to. We wanted to anchor the Zen Hospice Project, from its founding in San Francisco in the 1980s, in the values of patient service and compassion. At first we worked with people who lived on the streets of San Francisco. Above all, we did not want to hide behind our Buddhist doctrine and rhetoric, but to help them with simplicity and sincerity. I directed the Zen Hospice Project from 1987. I passed the baton and am no longer, today, in charge of this institution. One of the fundamental key teachings of Buddhism is that of impermanence. People at the end of life need to be surrounded by a calm and soothing presence. That's what we're working on.
In 2004, you founded the Metta Institute, inspired by Buddhist principles, which aims to provide spiritual training to those caring for people at the end of life. Fifteen years after its founding, what achievements or projects are you most proud of?
The Metta Institute is an outgrowth of the Zen Hospice Project. We founded it with the idea of sharing what we had learned at the bedside of people at the end of life so that a wider audience could benefit from it. We train professionals so that they can accompany these people with full awareness and compassion. This training is centered on a process of personal change. The objective is for the participants in these workshops to transform themselves internally while contributing to the development of the organizations in which they work. Hundreds of people have come to train at the Metta Institute.
"Before I started teaching mindfulness, a friend invited me to repeat this mantra: 'I could be wrong.' I use it regularly so as not to disconnect from the mysteries of life. The purpose of life is not to provide answers to all our questions, but to learn to live with them. »
We named our institute Metta, taken from the Pali word which means “benevolent love”, because when death is approaching, what matters most is love. Practicing metta means radiating benevolence and wishing all beings to be happy. We wanted all of our teachings to be rooted in these principles, grounded in love, while recognizing our interdependence and the impermanence of life.
Why did you write this book, Five invites (1)?
I was reluctant to write it… It was my wife who encouraged me by putting me in touch with a publisher who helped me launch the project and supported me. I wanted, through this book, to pay tribute to all these people whom I have met and accompanied, and who have done me the honor of confiding in me. And also and above all to give an account of what they have taught me. Everything written in this book was entrusted to me by them. These invitations are guides that can be very useful to people at the end of life. They can also help everyone to live a life that is meaningful and driven by values. We didn't want to keep these gems for ourselves, but to share them with as many people as possible.
What would you like your readers to take away from this book?
I would like to say to them: do not wait! Do not imagine that when it is time to disappear, you will spontaneously have the physical strength, the emotional stability and the clarity of mind to accomplish the work of a lifetime. Live your life fully while being aware that death is our common destiny, that we cannot escape it. Death can become our teacher. It can help us discover what matters most to us, and lead a more meaningful life. Life becomes more precious when we become aware of its precariousness.
Did your Buddhist beliefs help you in this process of accompaniment?
Buddhism helped me to know the truth. To understand that when you resist a process, it leads to suffering. To also understand that we are all interdependent. These truths make it possible to approach the shores of death with greater calm, grace and equanimity.
The second of your invitations is formulated as follows: “Welcome everything”. What does it mean?
Welcoming everything does not mean agreeing with everything or loving everything that comes our way. This means that we must take note of what is, of what happens. When we deny the existence of death, we live in a form of confusion. We live in fear and we suffer. We must understand what death wants to teach us. If we do so, other possibilities open up to us. It is an invitation to welcome everything without fear. We cannot achieve this by force of will, but by abandoning ourselves to love.
What is this second invitation to cultivate “a mind that does not know”?
This is not to encourage ignorance. Rather, it is an invitation to train ourselves to have an open, curious and receptive mind. When we are in the open state of mind of not knowing, we are ready to welcome what surprises us. As a caregiver, I have a toolbox that can help my patients. But these tools must not form a screen between my patients and me. I know they're there, but I don't care. A mind that does not know is a living mind, alert and curious about everything. It is an invitation to live without sticking ideas or preconceived thoughts on reality.
Are these five invitations all rooted in Buddhist beliefs?
Yes, they all have their roots in Buddhism, but also in the teachings that I received from all these terminally ill people. These five invitations interpenetrate, they are all interdependent.
You write, at the end of your book, that many people are afraid of death, because they don't know how to live with the unknown...
We tend to think that knowing things gives us the power to control them. But there are so many things in our lives that we don't know, so many mysteries… We delude ourselves, we think we have mastered things that we don't master. We don't know if we'll still be alive at the end of this day. We are prisoners of our knowledge. Before I started teaching mindfulness, a friend invited me to repeat this mantra: “I could be wrong”. I use it regularly so as not to disconnect from the mysteries of life. The purpose of life is not to provide answers to all our questions, but to learn to live with them.
Have you, yourself, managed to overcome your own fear of death, over the years in contact with these people?
I don't know. I'm still afraid of pain. I fear the confusion that sometimes arises in these end-of-life periods. But I've also discovered that when I'm scared and know I'm scared, a part of me isn't scared. That part of me that recognizes this fear is not afraid. I have learned over the course of my life to cultivate this awareness, this awareness of disturbed states of mind. We thus become capable of living together, of living in sympathy with fear.